Spike Jonze Knows 'Where the Wild Things Are'

Directed by: Spike Jonze, Runtime: 110 minutes
Grade: A-

Flipping through "Where the Wild Things Are", Maurice Sendak's beloved children's book, should take you roughly four to five minutes considering that you don't longingly gaze at the intricacy of the illustrations. It's understandable for an author to be skeptical of transforming this brief experience into a feature-length film, something Sendak wrestled with until he came upon director Spike Jonze (Adaptation., Being John Malkovich) and his imaginative yet reverent aims. Jonze's creation, with Sendak in close proximity during the process, is an elongated take on the children's book that's as inspired and entrancing as the source, a somber but rapturously creative vision of childhood fantasy that's as tender as it is artistically captivating.

Naturally, the story is simple. Max (Max Records) is a confused, mischievous -- and, some might argue, spoiled -- boy who, while wearing a gray wolf's costume similar to Ralphie's in A Christmas Story, hops on a counter and yells to his mother (Catherine Keener), with her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) in the next room, "I'll eat you up!" Though not openly stated, it's assumed that this is a single-parent family and that Max's rage might swing on this fact. He defiantly flouts his mother's calls to go to bed, bites her on the shoulder, and bolts out the door in the heat of the moment, later finding his way to a boat on a river bank. After hopping in and going for a late-night sail to a distant island, he's greeted to the snarls, growls, and massive bodies of mammoth beasts wreaking havoc in a far-away forest upon his arrival, showing us that they're in angered disorder.

Max has a moment of fear upon first seeing the wide-eyed, large-toothed "Wild Things", which might be shared with the younger crowd in the audience. He gawks at their capacity for destruction in the forest, nervously lurking in the shadows in his own beastly outfit as he sees unthinkably large beings -- well, one in particular -- blasting holes in giant dome-like structures that they're calling homes. He sees a ray of himself in the beast's destruction, a random wildness that he identifies with, and runs in their midst to "help" in the bedlam. When the monsters first spot him, Spike Jonze bears the film's teeth; an important part of creating the mood comes in realizing that these beasts are dangerous to Max, which occurs when they all swarm around him with ferociousness in full force. It's in Max's knee-jerk assertion for them to halt, followed by his child-minded musings declaring himself a magical, dominant king, that the innocent whimsy at this picture's core grabs hold.

Maurice Sendak's book sketches out the "Wild Things" with unmatched personality, so it almost seems obvious for Spike Jonze to get Jim Henson's Creature Shop to breathe life into these well-known faces. Well, they do so, and impeccably; with a mix of computer-generated effects and intricate visualizations, they ensnare their familiar looks with step-by-step precision. As they punch symmetrical holes in trunks, leap up to smash their heads on overlying branches, and pile together for comforting naps, there's a tangibility created that show an expected advancement in construction since Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. But, more than that, they've constructed monsters that are frightening yet gentle, fearsome yet warming to our eyes. They're inviting, even after they threaten to eat Max up.

What Jonze and writer David Eggers have also done is given each of them names, personalities, and voices, something they obviously don't have in the book, and the marriage they find between the visualizations in Sendak's illustrations to the vocal work is pitch-perfect. James Gandolfini scruffily blurts Carol, the flailing, violent ringleader whom Max denies favoring, while it's hard not to recognize Forest Whitaker as the mumbling Ida, Catherine O'Hara as the sharp-tongued Judith, Chris Cooper as the affable bird creature Douglas, and the others. They're individual and charming, but along with that they reflect little facets of Max's own youthful brazenness -- as well as bits and pieces of friends and family he wishes he had back home. The scripting for their dialogue does reflect a children's book sensibility with bluntness of dialogue, but the sincerity of the characters speaks louder.

Where the Wild Things Are might focus on these wild ones running amuck, human and monster alike, but it's mostly about a child's need for escape -- and this piece of organic artwork that Spike Jonze has crafted is a realm where we're easily able to get lost. Shot in Australia with his Adaptation. and Malkovich cinematographer Lance Acord, the lush locations take us into an environment that feels as isolated as, well, a child's imaginary paradise should. Tall trees drench the visuals with a thick, natural essence, giving us beauty in a wooded area that looks like a snapshot of any kid's embellished memory of a magical forest. As they shift from desert dunes and dense rocky terrains, they sprawl out in all directions in a way that never takes us away from believing in this personal utopia. Then there's a scene where Carol shows Max his hand-built model of his idea of utopia, which uses a level of design creativity and meticulous, symmetric photography that's simply breathtaking. There's a lot of eye-candy here, but that's part of the whimsical grandeur of it all.

Simple, creative aims, along with a vibrant musical accompaniment, carry us through a potent emotional gradient between Max and his new pals that changes colors with the picture up until the end. He builds a tightly-woven relationship with Carol, the dominant Alpha-male sort of figure in the group, almost in the way he might with the father we never see. Along the way, there's a female beast, KW (Lauren Ambrose), that has estranged herself from the group -- especially from Carol -- because she's found two other "friends" in this world. The understanding and open-armed way Max handles her straying from the pack reflects the ways that he ought to have handled his mother's relationship with her new boyfriend, though he still tries to reconcile KW and Carol. He also has to make heads-and-tails about a goat-like creature (Paul Dano) being bullied and not listened to, which speaks to any kid stuck in Max's situation at home. Will kids overlook these figurative glimpses? On the surface, possibly, but they might slip unaware into their minds as they're fixated on Max's world.

That's where the magic of Jonze's "adaptation" lies, though it's more of an author-approved reimagining than anything; though the pacing drags due to a lack of story development, there's an overall experience in being entranced with Max's wild yet tender rumpus with the "Wild Things" that's delightfully mesmerizing. We're taken into the confines of his imagination for over an hour and a half, which is built in a way that keeps both younger and older audiences in mind. Children of Max's age and younger will sit back and marvel at the magic behind his trip to where the wild things are, sparking a sense of imagination in them that might just encourage their own picturesque invented realms. However, this experience takes on a completely different aura with those older folks familiar with the book, creating a nostalgic trip into the magical world that they likely duplicated for themselves as a younger age, and forgotten. From the second Max defies the odds and claims his authority over the cannibalistic "Wild Things" to the overwhelming affection for his mother that calls him home, this is a piece of artwork with a glowing heart and unyielding love for Sendak's book.


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